If you’re new to airline travel, then all this new travel glossary can seem intimidating at first, especially when it comes to airports. However, it’s not that hard once you get used to it.
In this article, we’ll explain the differences between airport terminals, gates, concourses, and piers. All of these terms are used for navigating within airports, so you need to learn them if you don’t want to get lost within the airport.
What Is an Airport Terminal?
Airports are usually split between multiple terminals. An airport terminal is a part of the whole airport – you can think of them as mini airports within one large airport complex. Each terminal has all of the facilities needed to operate individually (customs and immigration, security, check-ins, runways, gates, baggage handling, etc.).
Airports are split into terminals to reduce the chances of someone messing up – it’s much easier to organize 50 flights under a single roof than it is to organize 100 flights. Plus, it’s also much easier for passengers to find the right gates. Usually, an airport starts with a single terminal and builds additional ones as the volume of passengers increases. Larger airports usually have multiple terminals, upwards of 3-6, and smaller ones only one or two.
Before you arrive at the airport, you need to find out which terminal your flight is departing from. Quite commonly, it takes upwards of 20-40 minutes to get from one terminal to another, so it’s really important to arrive at the right one.
What Is an Airport Gate?
An airport Gate is a place within the airport from which individual flights arrive and depart from. It usually has only one or two desks, a screen that shows departing/arriving flights, and all the facilities needed to board the flight (usually, a corridor that stretches to the doors of the airplane).
When you arrive at an airport for a flight, you’ll have to go to the check-in desks to get your boarding pass and drop off your checked luggage, then go through security, and then navigate your way to the specific gate that your flight will be departing from. Usually, each airport terminal has about 10-100 different gates, so you’ll need to look at the airport’s map to find the right gate.
Airport gates usually open only 30-40 minutes before the departure of the flight, so when you arrive at your gate, you’ll have to wait for some time until boarding starts. When the gates open, you’ll have to wait in line to show your boarding pass and passport, and board the flight.
Tip: Airports are huge, and it often takes 30 minutes just to get to your gate. If you want to carry less, save some money on fees, and avoid the lines at the check-in desks, travel only with hand luggage and skip checked luggage altogether. I recommend the Maxlite 5 international fabric carry-on, which I’ve been using for years now without any issues. In combination with a personal item, I can pack stuff for 2-3 weeks in there quite easily.
What Is an Aiport Concourse?
Some airport terminals are split into multiple concourses, each one housing about 10-20 gates. Essentially, a concourse is a long, rectangular part of the airport, designed to house multiple gates.
When you’re searching for your gates, the airport terminal might be split into 2-10 concourses, each one usually named after a different letter. So for example, the airport terminal could be split into concourse A (gates 1-20), concourse B (21-40), concourse C (41-60), and concourse D (61-80). If your gate number would be 44, you would need to follow the directions to concourse C, and then head to gate 44.
Airports are split into concourses to group airport gates into multiple sections, so it’s easier for passengers to find the right gates. They’re also used to effectively use up the land of the airport, and to minimize the distance from the gates to the runway for airplanes. It’s also more cost-effective for airports to move all domestic flights to a single concourse and international ones to another one, so that all concourses wouldn’t need to be equipped with customs and immigration facilities.
Read Next: How Long Can You Stay In an Airport?
What Is an Airport Pier?
To any regular passengers, airport piers should be treated as synonyms to concourses. They both share the same function – to split gates into multiple groups.
A pier is essentially a long, rectangular part of the airport designed to house about 10-20 gates. What makes piers different from concourses is how they’re connected to one another. Each pier is connected to other piers on one end with a perpendicular building, but concourses are connected to one another by buses or tunnels (below or above ground). Again, to a typical passenger, this doesn’t make much difference, so you can treat them identically to concourses.
If you want to learn what an airport terminal, concourse, and pier means, you can use this analogy. Think of car parking for large shopping centers. They’re usually split into multiple parking lots, each one named after a different letter to make it easier for passengers to remember where they parked. Each of these parking lots is split into multiple straight lines, and each one contains an identical amount of parking spaces. You can think of each parking lot as an airport terminal, each line of parking spaces as a concourse (or piers, because they’re synonyms), and each parking space as a gate.